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The Gradual (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

Christopher Priest may not be a prolific writer, but he was writing when I first got interested in science fiction, and he's still producing remarkable novels - most recently The Gradual. It's a remarkable book - mysterious, intriguing and with a main character who really takes the reader along on his sometimes dream-like experience.

But for one problem, it would have a solid five stars - and that's that it shouldn't really be here at all, because it's not science fiction, it's fantasy. (Unless you take the old definition that 'science fiction is what science fiction authors write.') I need to note a few specifics to explain why, but I'll try not to make them spoilers.

What makes it fantasy? Firstly it's set on a world that clearly isn't Earth, yet absolutely everything about the culture and environment (other than the fantasy elements we'll come to) is exactly like Earth, from the alcoholic drinks to the musical instruments and gramophone records. That's a relatively minor aspect. But then we've got a world where traveling from island to island causes shifts in time - you could just about set up an SF explanation for this, but it is not attempted. And most of all, these time shifts are countered by what can only be described as magic.

If we get over the book sneaking in here under false pretences, though, it is marvellous. It's not a book to read if you like everything set out just so from the beginning. Like the great Gene Wolfe, Priest enjoys leaving us confused about what's going on, only gradually revealing what's happening near the end. (Frustratingly so, to an extent, as the main character really doesn't try very hard to get an explanation, other than from people whose job it is not to give it.)

The best parts are those involving the nastiness of living in a dictatorship and anything connected to music. Throughout the book, music is a powerful theme - Priest really puts us in the head of a true musician and it's a wonderful experience.

Just occasionally there seem to be logical gaps. For example, the main character is advised that just moving around on a particular island will cause him big problems - yet everyone else, who should have the same problems, seems to do so just fine. And some of the supporting characters, particularly the female ones, could do with a bit of rounding out. But this doesn't stop this being a remarkable piece of writing.

In the past, I've found that it has been hard work to read some of Priest's novels (Inverted World springs to mind) - and the outcome sometimes didn't reward the effort. The Gradual reads like a dream (both metaphorically and literally in places) - it's excellent just as a highly approachable novel, but is also inspiring. Probably the best book by Priest I've ever read.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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